The super producer talks us through the recording process for one of the biggest albums of the ’80s
Many may not remember this, but Janet Jackson was a TV star first. Indeed, by 1982, she’d experienced enough success on Good Times and Fame that she decided to embark on a music career. Her first two albums, Janet Jackson and its follow up, Dream Street, didn’t make much of a dent in the charts. When it came time to record her third album, though, things had changed: Janet had divorced her husband and terminated her management contract with her father, resolving to fully concentrate on music.
Helping her along the way were up-and-coming producing tandem James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis. Their union would result in 1986’s Control, an album that spawned six singles, including the #1 hit “When I Think of You.” Four others hit the top five: “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Control,” “Nasty” and “Let’s Wait Awhile.” For the album’s 30th anniversary, we spoke with Jimmy about his role in crafting one of the biggest albums of the ’80s.
After the lackluster performance of her first two albums, what made you and Terry Lewis believe that you could work with Janet and change the musical direction for this album?
Well, the big thing on the first two Janet albums was that you could tell that they were good, solid albums. They had some really great producers working on those records like Rene and Angela, Jesse Johnson and Giorgio Moroder. The biggest thing was she didn’t have any involvement in the creative process. What we were doing back then and what we’ve always done was tailor the songs, specifically, for an artist. Our approach with her wasn’t any different.
She was a big fan of The Time, so I think she was excited that we were going to be working on her record. At an initial meeting, though, they made the mistake of playing her the last project we worked on with Patti Austin. Patti Austin’s record was going to be different than the record we were going to make with Janet. Janet was concerned when she heard that record because it had live orchestral instruments. We were basically making a Quincy Jones record. For Patti Austin, we created what we thought Patti Austin should have, which was this lush, sophisticated sound. Janet kind of questioned it because she didn’t want her record to sound like that. We had to assure her that her record was going to have her own sound on it. It made her feel better about working with us.
I always remember one thing her dad said. He asked us, “You guys are from Minneapolis?” We responded, “Yes, Mr. Jackson.” He said, “Prince is from Minneapolis.” We responded, “Yes. He is, Mr. Jackson.” He said, “Don’t have my daughter sounding like Prince.” [laughs]
The environment was relaxed, and we spent a lot of time getting to know each other. Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. So – we would literally go to the lakes and drive around and sit and talk. We didn’t talk about ideas. The whole approach wasn’t to talk about the record, but it was more about getting to know her and what she was thinking. We would go to the clubs and movies.
After a week of hanging out, she asked, “When are we going to actually start?” We replied, “Oh. We’ve already started.” She responded, “What do you mean?” We showed her some lyric ideas for “Control.” She said, “Yeah. This is what we’ve been talking about.” We replied, “Yeah.” She said, “Oh. So whatever we talk about that’s what we’re going to write about. That’s what the songs are going to be about?” We responded, “Yeah.” It was like a light bulb that went off in her head.
It got her excited about making a record. As soon as someone is engaged and motivated, that’s when the creativity really flows. I think she was in a comfortable environment, and over the weeks, she got to know us really well and wasn’t shy around us. I think we might have cussed a little bit too much for her. She would always fine us 25 cents every time we cussed. We probably blew half of the album budget just on that. [laughs]
The first song we did when we went into the studio was “He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive.” It gave us a chance to see what she could do vocally because the song had a big range on it. There were a lot of high notes at the end. She nailed the vocal on it, and we were really happy with how she sounded. That made us see that there weren’t any boundaries with what we could do with her. For instance, in coming up with a track called “Nasty,” it was very aggressive for a female singer. To me, the tracks we did for this record sounded like they could’ve been for a male artist or a rap artist. But we thought she would have the attitude to pull those kind of songs off. And we were right.
You mentioned the conversations that you, Terry Lewis and Janet were having during the making of the album that contributed to the lyrical content. Janet was 18 when she began working on this album. Was it her overall goal to showcase her power as a young woman? Did it happen naturally?
I think it happened naturally. Going into the making of the record, she didn’t know what to expect. Anytime something really works there are all kinds of intangibles that go along with it. Remember when she did her first two albums, she was still acting. At that point in time, she could get a record deal. So why not sing? She had a nice singing voice, but I think the motivation wasn’t really there because it wasn’t her idea. She didn’t really have control at that point in time to make the music she wanted. That’s not to say the music she got wasn’t good. We just had a different approach.
We went to this club one time and there were some guys kind of bothering her. We left her by herself, and we figured she would be OK. We kept an eye on her. She figured it out on her own. She came back over to us and she asked, “Why didn’t you guys help me?” We responded, “Help you out? You’re here. You’re fine. Everything is good.” She said, “Yeah. I guess I am. I’m cool.” We replied, “Yeah. You’re good. You didn’t need us.” And then she said to us, “Those guys were saying nasty things to me. I don’t like nasty boys.” We were like, “OK! So let’s write about it.” This was the spirit of the record.
I don’t think there was the overall thought of “I’m going to make an empowerment record.” I don’t think that’s what was intended, but Control was the first record where she told people how she was feeling. It was a really important step in her career.
In a previous interview, you spoke about John McClain’s influence during this time in Janet’s burgeoning career. What role did he play in making this record come to fruition?
The first thing he did was he paired us up. It was a bit of divine intervention, but some things had to fall into place. One of those things was he actually asked us to produce a different album for another artist on his label. We were excited about doing it, but the artist we were going to work with decided that she wanted to go a different way with other producers.
John called us and said, “I’m really embarrassed, but she wants to go a different way.” He asked us, “Is there anybody else on A&M Records’ roster that you want to record?” Terry and I looked at the roster and we both said Janet Jackson. We always felt like there was something there.
I thought Jesse Johnson and Foster Sylvers actually brought out the kind of sexiness and attitude that we felt was there, but it wasn’t really shown on her other records. I thought Foster and Jesse did a really good job of doing that. Foster produced a song for her called “Come Give Your Love to Me” on her first album and Jesse produced two songs on her second album, “Pretty Boy” and “Fast Girls.” These songs gave us a glimpse into that style and helped us inform our decision too. The way Jesse was taking her sound was the right direction for her.
John also knew – in the way good A&R people do – to step away and let us do what we knew how to do. When the album was done, he came up to listen to it. Then he did the thing that all A&R people do. He said, “I just need one more.” I remember at the time we were like, “John, come on. What more do you need? You got ‘Control,’ ‘Nasty,’ ‘When I Think of You.’ We have some good songs on here.” He kept saying, “I just need that one. I need my first single.”
Later on that day, we went out. At this time, Terry and I were working on our album, and we were riding around and this one track came on and John asked, “What is that? That is the one record I need right now for Janet!” John was very persuasive. We said, “OK. We’ll make a deal. We’ll play the record for her. If she likes the track, then she can have it. If she doesn’t say anything about it, we’re going to keep it.”
The way our studio was set up back then was we had a control room where our mix board was and all that stuff, then there was a little lounge right outside with a couch. She was out there sitting and when I put it on, I could see her starting to move a little bit to it, then she got what we called “the ugly face.” The ugly face is something you get when something is really funky. She said, “Ooooh, who is that for?” I replied, “It can be for you, if you want it.” She said, “Oh. I want it.” That song turned into “What Have You Done for Me Lately.” The rest is history. It became the first single. John was the one who made that call.
To me, John did the perfect A&R job. First, he made it possible for us to work together. Second, he stayed out of our way and let us make the record we wanted to make. Then he put the icing on the cake. The next thing he did, because he was very powerful at the label, was he took the record when it was done and literally stood on people’s desks. You have to remember people weren’t really expecting anything at this point, based on what she did on her previous albums. When John walked in the door with the record, he walked in with an attitude that the album was at least going to go double platinum. I think everybody was like, “Huh?” But he convinced everybody that this was going to be a huge record. He thought it was a masterpiece, and he wanted everyone to treat it as one. That was HUGE!
All any producers can do is make the best record you can make, but you do need people to champion it and to make sure it gets the proper attention, and John did that. It went beyond being an A&R; it was just his passion for the project and his love and respect for Janet and us.
Let’s shift to the writing process for the album. What was the typical studio routine between you, Terry Lewis and Janet?
We worked mainly in the evenings because the days were nice. We recorded this album during the summer. We recorded it in July into August. We recorded it over a six-week period. It didn’t take us long to do. We produced most of the vocals at night. In Minnesota, when there was a gorgeous day, you wanted to take advantage of it. We used to go to the lake and hang out. At night, we would get to work. We would start working between four and five o’clock and go until midnight. Obviously, it would vary, but this would be our typical routine.
Can you describe the music making process between you and Terry Lewis for this album?
For the most part back then, my way of building tracks was based on the equipment I used. For instance, we had just used a lot of the DMX drum machine on Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal.
One of the decisions we made for Janet’s record was that we weren’t going to use the DMX drum machine because we wanted her to have a different sound. We used the Linn Drum as our main drum machine. What we did is we went out and bought a bunch of custom sound cards. Everything nowadays is electronic, but back then, we had to literally open the drum machine up and there were these little tiny plugs and we could pop them out and physically put a new sound card in and lock it in.
It was the first time we used those sounds. When we would hear them, it’d made us think different creatively. There was a keyboard that came out that was called the Mirage. It was one of the first sampling keyboards. Once we got one of them, we went to town with it. We loved it. The keyboard sounds on “Nasty” are from the Mirage. The horn stabs on “When I Think of You” came from the Mirage. We used the bass sounds from the Yamaha DX7 on “When I Think of You.” We had a bunch of new toys and they added to our inspiration because we were trying to make something sound different and unique for Janet. These sounds have sort of become her trademarks.
Did you use any special recording techniques in the studio for this album?
Well, yeah. Sort of by accident. We were using analog tape. The thing that the tape does when you overload the tape, it makes things sound different. Nowadays with digital distortion, if you record something too loud, it craps out. But with analog recording, if you hit the tape really hard with sound, it made it sound different. It gave it a little bit of distortion, and you could really control the way something sounded.
One of the things we learned from Prince is he would record everything looking at the sound meter and every track would always be in the red, meaning that it was being recorded too loud. Prince’s theory was, if you put a little distortion on things, it sounded louder because your ear thinks when it hears distortion that something is loud. On the first Time album, it was one of the first albums I saw recorded where everything was in the red all the time. The needle was basically pinned on the machine. If you listen to “The Stick” and “Get It Up,” they sound amazing.
Terry and I’s inexperience showed on Control. We engineered it ourselves, and we recorded everything in the red. When you used to set up a tape machine, you could set it up where on a VU meter zero meant zero. You could set the machine to +6, meaning that when it said zero on the meter, it was actually six DB’s louder than what the meter was showing. When we recorded the album, we were recording at a +6 and we were recording in the red, so at that point, it was at a +12. We were totally doing it wrong.
When we asked Steve Hodge to mix this album, he came to the studio and put on the first song and said, “Oh my God.” We were like, “Yeah. It’s good isn’t it?” He replied, “No. Who engineered it?” We got really scared. We asked him, “Are we going to have to do the whole thing over again?” He replied, “No. No. No. I can work with it. I can save it.” What this accident ended up doing was it created a sonic that had never been heard before. It led to the aggressiveness and loudness of the record. Steve was a great engineer, and he had a lot of experience. He mixed “Just Be Good to Me” for us and a bunch of records we had done before. We trusted him and knew he would do the right thing.
On “Control,” he put the delay and echo on the hand claps. He asked us, “Do you like that?” We said, “Yeah. Yeah. We really love it!” I just saw Babyface the other day. We were talking and he said, “You know that hand clap thing we do? We got it from you guys.” If you listen to “Don’t Be Cruel” by Bobby Brown, the hand claps on there, they got the idea for it from “Control.” Steve’s influence on Control is just immeasurable.
Can you take me into the studio atmosphere and what it looked like when you were working with Janet on this album?
We were recording in our first Flyte Tyme studio. We had one control room and one studio. In the control room, we had a Harrison board with 40 channels. It had automated mixing in it. When we were putting the studio together, the two things most studios had were SSL or Neve boards and the tape machines were always Studer.
Well, we didn’t have the budget to get a SSL or a Studer. We had a Harrison board, which was an American built board and Otari was our tape machine. We didn’t have top-of-the-line studio equipment, but we didn’t care because we were in Minneapolis, and we were doing our own thing. I think those things contributed to the difference in the sound as well.
On this record, we used the AKG C414 microphone, which was a pretty standard microphone at the time. We had a little lounge right off from the studio. It had a TV. The TV was always on. We’d play video games, and we’d always eat in front of the TV.
Control was recorded on 24 tracks. Back in the day, it was pretty standard to do, but it required a bit of thinking by bouncing down everything. It made the decision-making process different because we were making final decisions as records were being made, as opposed to doing a bunch of stuff and going back to it later on. Once we recorded over it, it was gone.
I remember we used a DBX 160, and it was our limiter that we used. We used a DeEsser. It took the sibilance off of the letter s on vocals. It was important because we were putting it principally on vinyl. On vinyl, s’s made the grooves go nuts, then the record would skip. So we would have to take the frequency of the s and get rid of it, and the DeEsser was able to do that.
What was the budget for this album?
It wasn’t a whole lot. [laughs] In dollar figures I couldn’t even tell you. One of the advantages we felt like we had was that we had our own studio, so we didn’t have to worry about the hourly rate of being in a studio, where they could charge $100 an hour. We were able to go in and record whenever we wanted to. If we had to be in a commercial studio, the record would’ve never been made the way it was made. It took us six weeks to make the record. The first week was nothing but all of us hanging out. The next three weeks we recorded the music. The following two weeks we spent mixing it, and we were done. It was efficiently done. It wasn’t a huge budget record because Janet wasn’t a huge budget artist, and we weren’t necessarily huge budget producers at that time, either. We had enough money to complete the project.
Let’s go in-depth on some of the songs on the album.
“Control” became the title track for the record. It was the overarching theme of the record, which was a young woman asserting her independence and growing up. The lyrics were basically as Janet explained them to us. She was going out on her own, living in her own place, and she wanted to be the one in control. The track was led by the Linn Drum. If you listen toward the end of the record, there are a bunch of snare fills that aren’t really in time because I was playing them live against the track. When I was younger, I played the drums, and I thought I was a drummer. I had really good rhythm. After I put the pattern in, I’d push the buttons on the drum machine along with the beat that was already pre-programmed. Even the little keyboard parts on “Control” I played live. They weren’t sequenced, either.
I remember we used the Ensoniq Mirage keyboard on “When I Think of You.” It had this piano sound in it that sounded really cool, and it’s the one that’s on the song. The Mirage had such a distinct sound because it was the newest keyboard on the market back then.
We also needed a guitar part on the song. Terry had this old, green Telecaster guitar and it never stayed in tune. The intonation was always wrong on it, but he was able to play that part on the song. The drums on the track came from the Linn Drum. My inspiration for the beat on this song came from KC and The Sunshine Band.
Also, I remember when the album was done, we played it for Janet’s brothers. All of them were there except for Michael. They said that one song was going to be a smash. We asked them, “Which one? ‘Control’? ‘Nasty’? ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately’?” They replied, “No. Those are all very good songs, but ‘When I Think of You.’ That is a #1 record.” I was like, “Huh. Really? No way compared to these other songs.” But they kept agreeing that song would be a smash. And they were absolutely right. The Jacksons knew. You can never doubt them.